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Eye - September 30, 2004

Getting lost in translation


One of the best first features to play the Toronto International Film Festival this year was a German film called The Forest for the Trees. It's the story of Melanie, a naïve, small-town teacher who moves to a big city and utterly fails to integrate herself professionally or socially. I found this portrait of loneliness and psychological collapse exciting for its lean, intelligent aesthetic and upsetting for its emotional content. Mind you, I couldn't tell that it was funny.

"In Germany," writer-director Maren Ade explained to me in an interview, "people laugh a lot because Melanie's speaking a dialect. Her accent is very funny for a lot of people. It makes her a little bit weirder than maybe she seems.

"She talks like people in the country talk," Ade adds. "Most of the filmmakers in Germany don't let characters do that. In America, it's another thing, but in Germany, we don't let people talk with accents."

Recalling certain scenes, I realized that the city slickers do seem instantly amused or contemptuous whenever Melanie opens her mouth. But since I don't speak German, I didn't have a clue that Melanie's accent is the first in a series of things that cut her off from others. Subtitles can't convey that kind of nuance, which is why a German filmmaker with an eye on the international market would usually not include it. (American directors, on the other hand, are free to give characters Southern accents, a ready signifier for stupidity.) As I think back on the few dozen subtitled films I watched over the past three weeks, I wonder, "What the hell else did I miss?"

This question is approached in a wide variety of ways in Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, a terrific new collection of artwork, interviews and essays edited by filmmaker Atom Egoyan and York University professor Ian Balfour (Alphabet City Media/MIT Press, $49). The unusually squat, wide book has the horizontal aspect ratio of most movies (1.66:1, to be precise) and to survey its interplay of text and image is indeed reminiscent of watching a subtitled film. As the editors write in the introduction, "Subtitles are only the most visible and charged markers of the way in which films engage, in direct and oblique fashion, pressing matters of difference, otherness and translation."

The prevalent notion that subtitles are neutral translations of what the characters are speaking inevitably gets tossed out the window. In "Cultural Ventriloquism," Henri Behar relates some of the dilemmas he's experienced as a translator of films between English and French. Part of what makes Behar's job so difficult is that he must often work from a transcriber's notes rather than a script or the film itself.

When translating Drugstore Cowboy, he called Gus Van Sant looking for an explanation of the phrase "And god made a bet." The director didn't have a clue what Behar was talking about and the two eventually realized that the line was actually "No hat on the bed." (Wisely, Van Sant had a look at the rest of the transcript.) Rendering the slang of Boyz N the Hood into French also raised a host of complexities for Behar. Perplexed by Ice Cube's climactic line --"Five thousand" -- he decided not to offer any translation. Months later, he learned that "five thousand" was short for "Audi 5000," as in "I'm outta here." Behar later added the subtitle: "Je me casse."

Elsewhere in Subtitles, Egoyan and Claire Denis discuss a scene in her film, Vendredi Soir, in which a conversation that was meant to be largely inaudible to French viewers gets fully subtitled for the English audience, changing the nature of the scene entirely. In two other essays, B. Ruby Rich and John Mowitt reveal how foreign films get designated as such by the American industry and Oscar voters. Moving beyond issues of language to issues of culture, Negar Mottahedeh's "Where Are Kiarostami's Women?" examines how the great director's work is influenced by the officially mandated marginalization and absence of women in Iranian cinema, something most Western critics have failed to note.

All this may sound like stuff that only excites film scholars -- especially in the essays that are laden with academic-speak and Deleuze references -- but these issues come into play even in box-office champs. In Zhang Yimou's martial-arts pic Hero, a seemingly minor change in translation confounded my understanding of the film. According to the English subtitle on the international-release version I bought on DVD last year, the phrase on the banner that Jet Li's nameless warrior gives to the king -- "tian xia" -- means "All Under Heaven." For me, the phrase tied into the ambiguity I saw in the film's politics; the tyrant's campaign to unite China could be interpreted as either divinely ordained or brutally rapacious. In the Miramax version subsequently released in North America, the subtitle reads "Our Land," a Woody Guthrie-esque line that conveys a simpler but potentially more problematic strain of nationalism.

At a Hero screening in Massachusetts before the film's opening in August, an audience member asked Zhang about the modification. After the two English phrases were carefully explained to the director by his translator (Zhang speaks no English), he replied, "We struggled for a long time with the translation because it's difficult. There's a Chinese proverb that goes, 'To suffer yourself when all under heaven suffer, to enjoy only when all under heaven enjoy.' In the Chinese tradition, the idea of 'tian xia' has a very profound significance, and a true hero can hold 'all under heaven' in his heart. If you ask me if 'our land' is a good translation, I can't tell you. All translations are handicapped. Every word has different meanings in different cultures."

The lesson here is that any understanding of a foreign-language film is incomplete and imprecise, even though the confidence exuded by those crisp, white subtitles implies otherwise. However, this news should not be used as an excuse to skip the latest in Czech cinema because you don't recognize their equivalent expression for "MILF." As the contributors to Subtitles prove, these linguistic and cultural gaps between film and spectator pose an opportunity to create new and unexpected connections. Just don't believe everything you read.

Medium Cool appears every two weeks.

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